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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

MEMES OF THE TIME


We who are old enough to have lived through Watergate have burned into our minds certain phrases that capture those times.  Three that stand out for me are “modified limited hangout,” used by Erlichman in one of the taped Oval Office conversations, “plausible deniability,” a perennial favorite, and of course the premier phrase, “unindicted co-conspiritor.”

Before this mess is over, we shall have need of all three, I suspect.


22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I remember: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” The American Heritage Website has a longish article on “The Words of Watergate,” which appeared originally in 1997. There were a lot of utterances that entered public discourse from that fiasco: “I am not a crook.” “The tapes.” “At this/that point in time.” And of course: “I no longer have a strong enough political base in Congress,” which was the reason Nixon gave for leaving office. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

David said...

"Modified limited hangout"--I had to look that one up (in Wikipedia, of course). What a wonderfully suggestive phrase! "Limited hangout" is apparently derived from spy jargon. "Modified limited hangout" is Erlichman's innovation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Of course, how could I have overlooked that first one!

David said...

Anonymous at 1:29 pm,

There is also, of course, "Watergate" itself, the last syllable of which is now freely appended to other words to describe new scandals.

Anonymous said...

One of the other infamous Watergate terms was “Deep Throat,” used to refer to Bob Woodward’s confidential FBI source; the term was, of course, an allusion to a hit 1972 pornographic movie starring Linda Lovelace. That was then; now we have Stormy Daniels.

MS said...

The statements that stand out in my memory are John Dean testifying that he told President Nixon, "Mr. President, there is a cancer growing on the Presidency." Then Sen. Baker asking, "What did the President know and when did he know it." And then there are the humorous exchanges that occurred during the hearings - the attorney for one of the witnesses (I forgot who), in response to a warning to stay silent, "I am not just a potted plant." And, finally, Sen. Sam Ervin, wily Sam Ervin, saying, "I am just a simple country lawyer."

Carl Bernstein has been giving interviews opining that the current situation is worse than Watergate. I agree, for a couple of reasons. First, Watergate involved a break-in of the DNC headquarters in order to obtain information about the Democrats' campaign plans, which Nixon could use to improve his re-election prospects. I believe there is still debate regarding whether Nixon knew of, or ordered, the break-in. What led to his impeachment were the actions he took after the break-in occurred to cover it up, using bribes, etc. The claim alleged against Trump is that, with his knowledge, officials in his campaign met with operatives of a foreign government, a hostile foreign government, in order to obtain damaging information - stolen information - about his opponent. This, I submit, is worse - far worse - that what Nixon did, even if Nixon did, in fact, authorize the break-in.

Second, Nixon, with all his faults - and I acknowledge that there were many, from his involvement in the Alger Hiss affair, his red-baiting, his expansion of the Viet Nam War, etc. - he, however misguided, acted out of what he regarded as the United States' best interests. Many of those reading this may scoff at this opinion. But Nixon had served with distinction as a naval officer in WWII. Unlike Trump, he was well read and a knowledgeable student of history. When it became clear that he was going to be impeached, he did not choose to put the country through a traumatic confrontation - he resigned. He was far more popular with the Republican party than is Trump; he had a larger base of support than does Trump. Nixon was a flawed leader, but he was not a demagogue. I cannot see Trump resigning. This is all about him - the country be damned. He is already issuing fatuous and distorted statements about the Cohen plea and Manafort's conviction, that his supporters can use to come to his defense and to delegitimise whatever incriminating evidence Mueller may be able to produce. Trump is willing to incite a civil war in this country, between his supporters and his detractors, in order to save his skin. In my opinion, these are more perilous times than Watergate.

Anonymous said...

MS: The potted plant line is from years later: the Iran-Contra hearings.

We have from the current WH gang “alternative facts,” and Giuliani’s “truth is not truth” epistemology, and Jay Sekulow’s Whiteheadian “over time, facts develop,” and so on. Back in 1972 we had Nixon’s acknowledgment that some of the things on the tape transcripts were “at variance with certain of my previous statements.”

MS said...

Anonymous,

Sorry, you are correct - the "potted plant" statement was by Brendan Sullivan representing Oliver North. I think my other quotations are accurate.

And yes, its "delegitimize," not "delegitimise."

s. wallerstein said...

MS,

We agree once again, this time about Nixon.

It is unfair to compare him with Trump. Nixon was not a gangster nor a clown nor did he harass women. At the time I felt that Nixon was no or not much worse than JFK or LBJ, just a bit clumsier in hiding his crimes.

Anonymous said...

MS: I think you are right in being concerned about how far Trump would be willing to go to save his skin. The New York Times today notes that he’s already ratcheting up the witch hunt mantra. I could see him escalating this until he uses the charge to shut down Mueller. Also, sure, he’s a bully, a character assassin, and a narcissist etc., but when it comes to protecting himself and his family he’s no slouch. Don Jr. is one of Mueller’s targets, and Trump is never going to let that go anywhere serious. He’ll stop it, if he has to. And whatever he does will further energize his base of barbarians—and the rest of the Republicans seem to be mortally afraid of them. My sense is that what happens will really depend on the Republicans—and what have they done thus far? If they turn on him, he’s finished; if they don’t, he’ll just go on being a sleazy, rebarbative idiot. The Republicans do, after all, like what he does with his pen, even if what he does with his mouth embarrasses them. Besides the witch-hunt tack, he could start a war with Iran or create some other massive international diversion. Whatever it is, I think that we’re in for something big. My guess is, Mueller goes to the stake, as is fitting for a warlock (witches are female, aren’t they?).

MS said...

Anonymous,

Yes, I am fearful that we are headed for a constitutional and social crisis of unprecedented - for this country - proportions. All because of the misguided election of one man by a slough of benighted people - I don't care want their personal and financial rationales were.

LFC said...

IMHO, Nixon was a deeply conflicted personality, more so than either LBJ or JFK -- neither of the latter was a picture of psychological health, though JFK was somewhere on the broad spectrum of normality (for his era at any rate), and LBJ, though he had lots of hangups, cd function ok when he had to. Nixon was also able to function a lot of the time, but his psychological fragility and amorality, interacting w an admittedly quite keen intelligence, produced some of the nightmarish exchanges one sees on the tapes, not only re Watergate but also his interactions w Kissinger etc. Have to cut comment short, sorry.

MS said...

"I don't care want"? I guess I better start proof-reading my posts. It appears I am letting my emotions get the better of me.

s. wallerstein said...

LFC,

I certainly was not comparing Nixon with LBJ or JFK as to their psychological health.

I don't know if Nixon was any more or any less amoral than JFK or LBJ.

With regards to foreign policy all three were equally hawkish and ultra-anti-communist. As a matter of fact, in the famous 1960 debate between Nixon and JFK (which I watched), JFK was more hawkish.

They say that JFK had Chicago Mayor Daley manipulate election results in Illinois in 1960 so that JFK could win the Illinois electoral vote. There are lots of stories about the Kennedy family ties to the mob, and in fact, I recall that my father in 1960, who generally voted for the Democrats, voted for Nixon because the Kennedys were known for dishonest and mob-like business practices and for being anti-semites.

Kennedy lied to the public about so many things that I'll not bother to list them, so did LBJ and so did Nixon. So I would not call any of them honest or frank.

I would imagine that Kennedy's or Johnson's conversations were not much more uplifting than Nixon's, although that is just the way I imagine them.

Kennedy, by the way, led a double life, brought prostitutes into the White House, shared a lover with a mob-boss, etc.



MS said...

LFC,

I gather from this and your prior comments that you have a background in political science and/or history. You accurately point out that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon had psychological, shall we call them flaws, that affected their judgment and policy decisions. But, I dare say, this would be true of any person, including myself, you, Prof. Wolff, and any other person who might run for political office - we all have psychological issues of varying degrees of severity that would affect our judgment and policy decisions. (Personally, I believe that President Carter and President Obama were among the most stable individuals who have occupied the White House during my lifetime.)

You correctly note that Nixon was an intellectually keen individual – well-educated (J.D. from Duke), well read, very cunning (an excellent poker player), knowledgeable regarding foreign policy, etc. These traits, arguably, when combined with his psychological issues, made him particularly dangerous. So, my question, is which, of course, you are not obliged to answer, or on which you may not have an opinion, as between Nixon and Trump, who presents a greater danger to the welfare of this country? Trump does not have nearly the intellect that Nixon did. But Trump is very cunning and street smart, knows instinctively how to manipulate a certain kind of mentality. He is an orator with a certain inflammatory skill. He is anti-intellectual and academically uninterested (hah, I avoided “disinterested”),as demonstrated by his ignorance of, and disrespect for, the provisions of the Constitution, its safeguards and restrictions. (When the senators approached Nixon to explain the precariousness of his position, that he was likely to be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, Nixon's understanding of the Constitution informed his decision to resign. Could we count on Trump to do the same, even if, mirable dictu, it were to occur?) He knows virtually nothing about U.S. history (e.g., Frederick Douglass is still alive), and therefore has no appreciation for the trials and tribulations that have been caused by the policy errors of his predecessors. (I am reminded of Mark Twain’s observation, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And Trump knows a lot of things for sure that just ain’t so.) Arguably, his psychological disability is far more severe than even Nixon’s. Is his combination of ignorance and instability an even greater threat to this country than was Nixon’s paranoia and acument? I would be interested in knowing your opinion on this (as well as the opinions of other readers of this blog), if you have one and are willing to share it. I promise not to engage in a pedantic debate back and forth if you disagree with me.

LFC said...

It's late and I've been away from my computer this evening. Have to be brief.

To s. wallerstein: I'm not an expert on the Kennedys, but I'm not aware of any credible evidence that JFK or RFK or EMK (Ted) were anti-Semitic. I think they all had lots of Jewish advisers, staffers, speechwriters, lawyers who worked for them. (Their father, Joseph P. Kennedy, might have been a different matter, but that doesn't taint the children, not in this respect at any rate.)

To MS: You pose an interesting question about Nixon vs Trump. I'll mull it over and will try to answer sometime tomorrow.

Charles Pigden said...

'Limited hangout' even 'modified limited hangout ' requires both the capacity to concoct a reasonably coherent set of lies and half-truths and then the ability to keep your misleading story straight at least for a while. Trump is not intellectually up to this, nor is Giuliani.

s. wallerstein said...

LFC,

The Kennedy brothers all showed an impressive capacity for growth (unlike Trump), which is to their credit.

Both RFK and Ted became model progressive leaders. Ted was, as far as I know, the only mainstream U.S. politician who visited Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. His car was stoned by rightwing thugs, but he did get together with moderate opposition leaders and human rights groups. That took courage and I doubt that it won him any votes back in the U.S.A.

Joseph Kennedy's anti-semitism is fairly well-known..
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_P._Kennedy_Sr.#Anti-Semitism

I don't know how far JFK had grown out of that at the time of his death. He probably would have abandoned his father's anti-semitism if he had had time. By the way, those who are younger probably do not recall that until the early 60's the Catholic Church blamed all Jews for the death of Jesus. I remember that from time to time Catholic kids would attack me, charging me with "having killed our Lord Jesus Christ". JFK claimed to be a devout Catholic, although that may have just been political expediency, so given his father's beliefs and standard Catholic anti-semitism pre-Vatican Council 2, Jews had some reason to suspect him of anti-semitism when he ran for president in 1960.

LFC said...

MS,
On the Trump/Nixon question, this will sound like a cop-out, but I find it very hard to answer, partly b.c the surrounding contexts are different in various ways (e.g., the political parties are more polarized now, as is arguably the electorate in general), partly b.c the Nixon 'story' is over and the Trump story obviously isn't.

My sense of Nixon is that despite his intelligence/acumen, there were times when his emotions took over -- and the results could have been disastrous had not there been people to "talk him down," so to speak. See, e.g., his ruminations about using nuclear weapons during the 1971 East Pakistan - Bangladesh crisis, which evidently appalled Kissinger, who was happy to engage in other moves that supposedly demonstrated 'resolve' (e.g. sending an aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal; "at least we're coming off like men," Kissinger remarked to Nixon [that's from the tapes]) but who seems to have drawn the line at use of nuclear weapons. Whether Nixon was serious about that is difficult to say, but emotional volatility is an element I see him and Trump having in common.

Whether Trump's particular mix of weaknesses/characteristics is a greater threat than Nixon's particular mix was, I'm really not sure.

MS said...

LFC,

Thank you for your informed response.

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

LFC,

Thanks to Mr Brezhnev, India's best friend. He literally drew a line in the Bay of Bengal so the US and British (or any other supporters) ships could not cross without heavy repercussions.

s. Wallenstein.

My knowledge of history is limited, but even I can see that Rome found Jesus to be a nuisance to be swatted and carried it out without compunction.

s. wallerstein said...

Venkataraman Amarnath,

Here's Wikipedia on Jewish deicide:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_deicide